(Image credit: Peter and Maria Hoey)
During the 17th and 18th centuries, people knew electricity was the next big thing—they just weren’t sure how to use it. So they tried it all.
1. RUDIMENTARY DENTISTRY
For most of history, treating a toothache was a matter of tenacity and creativity. The Aztecs sought to stave off pain by eating chilis. Native Americans chewed on mistletoe berries. Ancient Scots wrapped caterpillars in cloth and tucked them near the ailing tooth. In 1700s pre-dentistry England, people simply had the tooth extracted—by barbers and blacksmiths. So it’s no wonder that, by the late 18th century, those suffering from dental laments didn’t think twice about trying an electric shock to the mouth. Doctors would take a metal wire, encased in glass or strung through a feather, and apply it to the throbbing molar. Unfortunately, the jolting pain offered no relief, making berries and caterpillars seem like a tea party.
2. HIGHLY UNETHICAL ENTERTAINMENT
In 1730, an Englishman named Stephen Gray realized that electricity moves through some objects (like metal or people) but not others (like rubber). Today, we know this as conductivity. To demonstrate the phenomenon, Gray built a harness out of silk cords and paid an orphan boy to be his guinea pig. He strapped the 47-pound boy to the silks, suspended him in midair like Superman for an audience, and gave him a charge with an electrostatic device. The boy appeared to acquire mystical powers: Small objects floated toward him. He could turn book pages without touching them. When people tried to poke him, sparks flew. Gray was awarded a medal for his experiments. But, presumably, not custody of any children.
3. SHOWING DEATH WHO’S BOSS